AcacdemyOcean interview with Todd Dewett

Hi there! 

Today we'd like to take a fresh look at leadership. What does it mean to be a true leader? How to help your team in difficult times, etc. 

To discuss this, we've invited a man who performed for Microsoft, IBM, GE, Pepsi back in the day – Todd Dewett.

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Todd Dewett
Dr. Todd Dewett is a globally recognized leadership educator, author, and speaker. 

After working with Andersen Consulting and Ernst & Young, he completed his PhD at Texas A&M University in Organizational Behavior and enjoyed ten years as an award-winning professor. He’s delivered over 1,000 speeches around the world and created a library of online courses enjoyed by millions of professionals. His clients include Microsoft, IBM, GE, Pepsi, ExxonMobil, and hundreds more. 

 Visit his home online at

So let’s start our interview!

AO: Todd, what do you think are the habits of a successful leader?

Todd: Aside from general competence and a strong work ethic there are many habits and qualities to consider, though for me a few rise to the top of the list. 

First, they prioritize kindness and a service mentality. 

They know that their mission is to help others grow, not just to secure certain performance outcomes like profits, quality, or client satisfaction. 

 Next, they maintain a learning orientation. 

They don’t just help others believe that more is possible, they believe it themselves. As a result, they engage education in all its forms. This includes learning from mistakes and past performance, and consuming educational resources (e.g., courses, books, blogs, podcasts, degrees). They don’t just talk about personal growth, they demonstrate it. 

Finally, they support positive change. 

Creativity, innovation, change, improvement – say it however you’d like. Great leaders understand that what got us here today isn’t good enough for tomorrow. They remain open to ideas and suggestions and create an environment that facilitates experimentation and principled risks. They know that the status quo is important, but that helping it evolve is even more important.

AO:  What do you think of the so-called gray cardinals  (the one who exerts power behind the scenes without drawing attention) ?

Todd:  A capable professional might adopt this practice if they think it is advantageous. E.g., allow the person who is the public face of the issue to take the bigger risks, or if it suits their personality, they might be, for example, more introverted. 

Whether this practice is sound depends on the issue one is pursuing. 

To actually create change, staying in the background might simply not be good enough. 

Sometimes, there is only so much you can accomplish through others. Most importantly, modern leadership requires transparency, collaboration and voice, and accountability. They are not negotiable. 

Thus, anyone who prefers staying behind the proverbial curtain does run the risk of being seen in a negative or confusing light. Today’s professional prefers, and typically expects, a leader who is forthright, genuine, and who keeps them in the loop.

AO: What is the most common mistake leaders make?

Todd: First, they assume that others think like they think. They project themselves onto others and make decisions that are not fully understood or appreciated. You must assume we all have different perspectives, thus when time allows, decisions should be collaborative. 

Next, after a few promotions and successes, leaders often cease many of the behaviors that helped them ascend in the first place. Questioning themselves and reflecting, doing proper analyses, conferring with a mentor or coach, etc. For midcareer leaders it is wise to reignite these behaviors. 

Finally, managers tend to see information as power, and thus they hoard information and share only when they must. This can be understandable, but generally the rule is to share more not less. 

Keep your books open, your door open, and your agenda open for discussion. 

They more they feel you are genuinely transparent, the more they trust you – and trust is the key to all higher-level forms of performance.

AO: What type of leader is easier to thrive in crisis situations?

Todd: First, it must be stated that during a crisis, performing well is very difficult. Resource availability, time pressures, and options for moving forward can be very constrained. Having said that, the more successful leader will be three things: decisive, transparent, and caring

Decisiveness is required during a crisis. 

One must not be rash but acting quicker than normal is usually essential. It gives others confidence that you’re in control. 

Transparency is always important as I noted before, thought during times of crisis it is even more important. 

This is when leaders often tighten up and share less. That’s a fear response, and with self-awareness you can learn when you’re doing it and then remember to open up the dialogue more. 

 Finally, they must be caring. 

Many somehow still think that it is not a leader’s job to care for employees. They have a strict transactional perspective. This is sad. We spend so much time together at work, we must hold ourselves to more principled standards – especially during a crisis. Don’t say you care – show it: be kind, helpful, understanding, patient when possible, etc. When another human knows you care, they know they are not alone and that they can keep pushing forward.

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AO: How can a leader support his team in difficult times for the company? How to properly communicate with the team?

Todd: Several ideas become quite vital in the face of large challenges. 

First, share the pain. 

To the extent that extra work and sacrifices are required, the leader must shoulder as big or bigger a burden. 

Next, don’t be afraid to express your humanity. 

Don’t act like you’re not scared or confused. False confidence is usually seen for what it is – an act. Real confidence is created by connecting with others on a honest human level, so have the tough uncomfortable conversations that will help them feel validated

It’s also wise to think about how you can use resources to help them during difficult times. This might be time off, flextime or remote work, a shift in duties. It could be a simple as spending more time listening, counseling, and comforting the team. 

How do you communicate with the team under these circumstances? The same rules as always apply, but you have to be better at it and more frequent. Increase your time spend among them listening, helping, coaching. Stay positive and encouraging, but also a little blunter and more direct. The goal for communication in times like this are efficiency and clarity. No wasted time. No ambiguity.

AO: Often goals are not achieved only because they were not formed correctly. How to set goals for yourself personally and for the team?

Todd: Ideally, goals are set collaboratively, not merely dictated. 

One common error is not keeping employees aware of changes in circumstances that might require changes in goals. 

Often, employees feel like they are shooting at a moving target. As the demands on the team and the organization shift, so too should the goals we are all chasing. 

For yourself, be challenging – think of 2/3 of your goals as SMART (specific, measurable, aligned, reachable, and time-bound), but for the last 1/3 you must BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals). Push yourself – dream. 

I feel similarly about the team. In fact, there is research about children in school showing that when teachers have higher expectations of them, they perform better. Employees need to be challenged. When they also feel respected and supported – they will rise to the occasion.

AO: What factor can keep an employee in a company better than salary?

Todd: Salary is a potent factor, but not among the best. 

At the top of the list is work a person loves. 

When they have high fit with the work, they feel purpose and can more easily endure other imperfections. 

Next, is the relationship they have with their supervisor and team.

Relationships truly matter. For example, the number one reason for voluntary turnover is bad boss relationships. Invest in better relationships, and you’ll not only see higher productivity, but longer tenure. 

Finally, growth opportunities. 

The chance to gain new knowledge and skills, new promotions and roles, and new educational opportunities is huge. They want to know they have a reason to stay so help them see the possibilities.

AO: Todd, what do you think is the role of an HR leader in managing change in a company?

Todd: HR is an interesting area. It’s also an area undergoing great change. It has morphed from personnel to HR to new areas of focus such as learning and development and talent management. I think HR has evolved past being a necessary mechanical department focused on regulations, compensation, benefits, laws, etc. 

As training has evolved into more thoughtful people development efforts in recent decades, HR has become central to successful change efforts

This is why they are increasingly gaining a seat at the strategy table inside organizations. They have become specialists in the best practices surrounding leadership development and tactics for ensuring successful planned change initiatives. Not to mention their role in supporting employee well-being. A competent HR team is now integral to the success of any large-scale initiative.

AO: Finally, it would be interesting to hear the most valuable professional advice you have received or would like to give to readers

Todd: A few thoughts that might be useful, depending on the situation… 

You don’t know it all, but you can keep growing and learning. 
You might be in pain, but you are not alone. 
No matter what you’ve achieved, know that more is always possible.

I have actually spent a lot of time on this topic. Creating quotes and sayings is a fun creative activity for me. From the Free Inspiration page on my site, you’ll find this one that I love about authenticity: 

The more you try to manage impressions, the more others know you’re acting. 

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